It’s something that tech giants like Facebook have known since their beginnings: creating a relevant, cross-channel customer experience is paramount to the organization’s growth. Yet recently, a very different type of organization has been perfecting customer experience: museums.
It’s a move partly made out of necessity. The U.S. cultural landscape has seen visitation steadily drop, as just 33.4% of adults attend one core arts event per year, compared to 39.4% in 2005. To counteract this shift, museums are forced to overcome the misperception that they’re dusty relics tied to physical spaces, falling behind in a digital world.
In the past year, membership executives and marketers at top museums have shown just how wrong that perception is. They’ve expanded their brands into the digital realm to both attract new visitors andprovide a more curated experience. At the heart of this is a three-pronged approach that influences everything from high-level identity to the intersection of the physical and digital realms.
They use identity to give visitors a taste of the experience. Forward-thinking museums are using brand identity to give potential visitors an early hint of what to expect, and invite participation and discovery before they ever get in the door. Historically, museum identities have been grounded in the physical structure, often for good reason—the sails of the Sydney Opera House, for example, are a cultural anchor for the city.
More recently, institutions like New York’s Whitney Museum have recognized that this approach doesn’t fit its strategy. As it relocated to a new neighborhood last year, the Whitney wanted to reveal part of the revamped experience with a curious public before they set foot in the door.
The answer? A new identity system that reflected the experience visitors would have inside. “The system literally responds to art—a fundamental attribute of the Whitney since its founding in 1930,” the Whitney said in describing the identity. “It illustrates the Museum’s ever-changing nature, and provides an important point of continuity.”
Our work with VCUarts’ Institute for Contemporary Art was built with the same principle in mind. Without an existing physical location, we built an identity based on the experience the ICA aims to create for its visitors—and used an in-progress, ever-shifting mark to show the ICA’s belief that art is a catalyst for a constantly changing conversation.
They build digital tools with intention. The best museum marketers have accepted a certain idea: that we live “not in the physical world, or the digital world, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two,” as Museum of Modern Art senior curator Paola Antonelli told The New York Times last year. In other words, yes, it’s impossible to ignore the impact digital can have on an experience in today’s world—but that doesn’t mean building an app for the sake of building an app. Museums need to create digital tools that enhance the desired experience, and complement the in-museum physical experience at the appropriate moments to deepen their engagement.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is doing just that, as part of what it calls building a “21st-century museum.” It gives each visitor a touch-sensitive stylus, which can be used to write and draw on large, interactive tables with touch screen surfaces. There’s a message behind the “toy”: crucial to the museum’s mission is “giving visitors explicit permission to play, and to explore the process of design for themselves,” says Sebastian Chan, director of digital and emerging media at Cooper Hewitt. The stylus brings this idea to life through a more immersive experience.
Similarly, our work with the National Baseball Hall of Fame took an idea core to the museum itself—that the game of baseball belongs to the entire country—and brought it to life digitally, building an app that surfaced hyper-relevant, specific content at the moments fans wanted them. The app’s ultimate goal was bringing digital and physical together, as it aimed at driving people to Cooperstown through a rewards system.
They understand their desired visitors beyond attendance numbers. Good lead generation isn’t just about getting more visitors. It’s also about understandingmore about your visitors, and appealing to them while creating an experience that makes them want to return time and time again.
Recently, the Dallas Museum of Art had a problem: despite a small-but-passionate base of visitors and donors, the museum needed to expand its reach—and learn more about those who did visit. So it proposed a bold change: the museum would waive its membership fees for visitors willing to provide just a name and an email address.
As it turns out, people were happy to comply. And that was just the beginning: each visitor was given a card to scan when entering galleries, earning “points” that could be used as credits at the gift shop or parking. They used the card to indicate which works of art they enjoyed the most, which exhibits they spent the most time with, whether or not they brought friends along, and more. It’s crucial demographic information—and behavioral knowledge—that is good for both the visitors and museum.
As museums recognize the need to transcend physical location while staying true to their visitor bases and core missions, they’re adopting key principles that for-profit companies are also practicing: focus on customer experience, and orchestrate interactions across the digital and physical space with clear intention.